(started on Saturday, completed after much needed sleep on Sunday am)
Trapped in the belly of the beast...
Greetings from Quebec, the city that will most be remembered for the ubiquity of its protest - people, sound and tear gas - everywhere.
I've seen no official numbers, but I spent 11 hours in the street today and this city is revelling in its opposition to the FTAA. Actions abound, with the next one seemingly larger than the previous. Spontaneous percussion and dancing will fill a square while three blocks away the cops and protesters play cat and mouse with tear gas and pepper spray. This might seem like an odd way of describing it, but with a couple of notable exceptions, that has been my impression.
After failing to get close enough yesterday to take good photos of the action at the fence, my friend and I took our little press passes out of hiding (you don't walk the streets wearing an accredited press pass) and went to check out the action from the other side. We got much closer and I got shots of cops I would never have been able to get otherwise, but I could not shake the feeling of simultaneously being a spy and a traitor. From this vantage, what was remarkable, was the sense of nonchalance among the cops lobbing tear gas and CS canisters into the crowd with 12 gauge pump action shotguns. They looked like Rambo, but they acted like they were hanging out playing basketball with their buddies. They'd shoot the gun, wait to see if they needed to dodge the return throw, and then turn around and munch on an energy bar. There were a couple of prime candidates for the LAPD who moved to the fence and targeted people directly, with ugly ramifications, but by and large, it was unconscious crowd control.
Unfortunately, things began to escalate to the point that they locked down the perimeter and we were trapped for four hours in the belly of the beast. Searching for a restroom (no surprise to those of you who know me), I stumbled into the Summit's Media centre. We make lots of noise about the corporate media and their detached reporting, but walking into that cavernous, windowless room, I got a sight I will never forget. Row upon row of suited people talking into phones and typing on their laptops. News is skewed because these people have no idea what the street even looks like and clearly don't care. I guess I expected some version of an IMC space with dirty, chemical soaked people desperately attempting to document what they've seen. But they've seen nothing and urgency is reserved for personal jostling on the prestige ladder.
Back out in the street we watched the fence being torn down from the inside. Unlike the fears being promulgated on TV of masked terrorist-like protesters attempting to rush the fence and take on the entire summit, only a few protesters crawled through once the fence was down and unfortunately ended up on the losing end of hand to hand combat with a couple of cops. The couple of corporate media folks standing around us marveled at the fact that thousands didn't pour through the openings, insinuating that they didn't have the balls. They seemed surprised when I explained that the end goal for most was not a storming of the castle, but the destruction of a symbol that was viewed as a barrier to participatory democracy.
When we finally escaped the inner sanctum, we rejoined the masses in the streets. Several areas of the perimeter were crowded with thousands of people running back and forth toward the fence depending on where the next can of gas was spewing. I was reminded of that game we used to play as kids where one person would turn their back and everyone would run from behind and try to tag them. If they turned around and caught you, you had to go back to the start. Unlike other large actions I've been involved in where the menace factor was high, this game-like atmosphere was broken only by a direct hit into the crowd that sent all of us reeling into the fresh air swearing that we wouldn't go back again. But I think tear gas must be something like childbirth, once you stop crying and wretching you forget how painful it was and you go back for more.
My overall impression of Quebec has been less the need to destroy and more the desire to be heard. The streets were filled with sound, every available surface used as a percussive instrument creating a steady drumming that pervaded the entire city. Woven into this cacophony was the lone sound of a bagpipe played by a protester in full Scotish regalia. Chants filled the air in more languages than I could decipher and protesters sat in front of oblivious police lines trying to explain to them what the FTAA was all about.
Rounding out the noise and the sheer volume of people was the ever present smell of tear gas and pepper spray. Around 8 pm last night there was no where we could go in the lower part of the city where our eyes didn't burn and where breathing wasn't pepper-laden and painful.
I'll have more to say later when I think through my impressions. But at the moment, I'm left with a vague unease at the rote behavior on both sides of the fence. I want to think it's all working and that everyone's efforts are worth it. But my visit to the inside made me fear that the protests fell on deaf ears and my mingling on the outside left me wondering if the culture created by these gatherings could sustain itself and ever really breach the fence.